Electronic waste, or e-waste, is one of the fastest growing waste streams worldwide. Rapid industrialisation, improved standards of living and higher disposable income have led to a surge in the electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) volumes in the market as well as the associated e-waste.
E-waste typically includes discarded computer monitors, motherboards, cathode ray tubes, printed circuit boards (PCBs), mobile phones and chargers, compact discs, headphones and white goods such as LCD/plasma televisions, air conditioners and refrigerators. These devices when dumped in landfills along with other solid waste can pose a serious threat to human health as well as the environment. This is because they contain many deadly chemicals and metals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, polyvinyl chlorides, brominated flame retardants, beryllium, antimony and phthalates. Considering the environmental and health hazards posed by e-waste, its proper management is critical.
The e-waste menace
During the winter session (December 2021) of Parliament, it was informed that over 354,000 tonnes of e-waste was collected and processed in financial year 2021, a surge from 224,041 tonnes in the previous financial year. Based on annual reports submitted by 35 state pollution control boards (SPCBs)/pollution control committees (PCCs) to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), 22,700.33 tonnes of e-waste was collected and processed in financial year 2017, 69,413.619 tonnes in financial year 2018, 164,662.993 tonnes in financial year 2019, 224,041 tonnes in financial year 2020 and 354,540.7 tonnes in financial year 2021.
After China and the US, India is the world’s third-largest contributor of e-waste, with 3.2 million tonnes of e-waste generated in a year. Therefore, for India to transition from a linear to a circular economy vis-à-vis electronics, policymaking and better legislative enforcement will have to play a key role.
India is the only country in South Asia with a specific e-waste law in place, since 2011. The e-waste rules, formerly the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, provide guidelines for the transportation, storage and recycling of waste, and have also introduced the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR).
However, only 22.7 per cent of the total 1,014,961.21 tonnes generated in 2019-20 in India was collected, dismantled, and recycled or disposed of. This e-waste comprises 21 types of EEE notified under the E-waste (Management) Rules 2016.
E-waste legislation in India
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is the policymaker for e-waste management in the country. The health and environmental challenges that accompany informal e-waste handling were the key reasons for the introduction of the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules in 2011. These rules came into effect from May 1, 2012. However, the implementation of these rules was not very effective due to shortcomings on multiple fronts.
To address the shortcomings, and to make the legal framework effective and functional, the E-waste (Management) Rules 2016 were notified, with effect from October 2016. In March 2018, these rules were amended. The primary objective of the 2016 rules has been to ensure environmentally sound management of e-waste. The rules also aim to ensure protection against the adverse effects of inappropriate handling and management of e-waste. Under the rules, producers and their service providers, dismantlers, recyclers, refurbishers, etc. are responsible for the collection of e-waste. Meanwhile, the SPCBs/PCCs provide information on e-waste collected and processed in their respective states/UTs to the CPCB.
Recent state initiatives
Apart from the central government, the state governments are undertaking initiatives to tackle the issue of e-waste disposal. For instance, the Delhi cabinet approved the setting up of an e-waste eco park. This is claimed to be the country’s first such park and will help to reduce pollution. The park will be an integrated facility, which will accommodate various handlers such as e-waste refurbishers, dismantlers, recyclers, plastic waste processors and others on the same premises. It will also have different types of processing and recycling units of the materials recovered from e-waste sites, so that materials could be extracted for future production.
In June 2021, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) started an online collection facility to ensure scientific disposal of e-waste. It partnered with RBH E-Waste Recycle Hub Private Limited. According to the agreement, the company will purchase e-waste from citizens on the basis of requests received through the portal. As of May 4, 2022, the SDMC’s online portal that facilitates selling of e-waste has received over 2,000 applications and over 900 people have availed of the service so far.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Noida launched a door-to-door electronic waste collection drive on January 25, 2022. A vehicle was launched for this purpose. All Noida residents can avail of this facility by calling toll-free numbers. In addition, the authority has already selected two private companies for recycling of electronic garbage. The vehicle will be mounted with a GPS system for monitoring its movement.
The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) too announced that it is in the process of bringing the informal sector within the ambit of the formal sector to enhance e-waste recycling. According to the MPCB, the e-waste being scientifically treated in the state has touched around 80 per cent in 2021.
Further, the Bihar government authorised 142 e-waste collection points in various districts and has initiated awareness drives regarding e-waste hazards. In December 2020, five e-waste disposal centres were set up across the state. These centres are located at NagababaKhatal, Harmu, Morabadi, Kantatoli and Khelgaon. Besides, the Ranchi Municipal Corporation is planning to introduce a radio frequency-enabled identification-based door-to-door e-waste collection system soon.
Issues and challenges
While several initiatives are being taken, the e-waste domain is still nascent and not devoid of challenges. Some of these challenges are:
- Poor information on e-waste generation rates: The 2012 regulations acknowledged the lack of waste inventories as a limitation and placed the responsibility of developing state-wise e-waste inventories on the respective SPCBs. As per reports, seven years since these regulations, no SPCB has released an inventory. The sales data on electronic products, which is an important input in the estimation of e-waste quantities, is often available at the national-level aggregation, making it challenging to produce inventories at the state level.
- Environmentally unsustainable practices: Despite the growth of the dismantling and recycling sector (in terms of the number of such facilities), the actual waste processed in the formal sector still remains very low. The lack of awareness regarding e-waste and costs of returning the end-of-life equipment to formal collection centres are reducing the willingness of household and institutional consumers to return their waste to the formal sector. Most importantly, the informal sector, through the convenience of household collection and monetary incentives (even if nominal), makes it more attractive for consumers to return their waste, relative to the formal sector, which is yet to invest in robust systems of collection and processing.
- Frictions in markets for end-of-life products: The inability to reliably source e-waste quantities that create economies of scale restricts the entry of private players, such as producer responsibility organisations to set up e-waste management systems in the formal sector. For example, employing effective recycling technologies for e-waste may require significant upfront capital expenditure, which may not be justified for private entities in the absence of certainty around sourcing of enough quantities of e-waste.
- Inadequate regulatory design and enforcement: In the 2012 regulations, the mandatory take-back system for producers, without accompanying collection targets, provided no incentives to take responsibility and thus induced little improvements in e-waste management practices. This was addressed in the 2016 amendments, which provided more regulatory certainty by specifying gradual and increasingly stricter collection targets. Nevertheless, the regulatory design places a significant burden on the already ill-equipped regulatory agencies. The regulators are expected to review the EPR plan submitted by the producers, grant authorisation and enforce the provisions of the EPR plan.
The way forward
In sum, the need of the hour is to make the conversion of “waste to wealth” easier. India is among the 28 countries at a high risk of e-waste congestion, which could make proper handling of the material challenging in the coming years, as per a new mathematical model that has mapped the global movement of hazardous waste over the past two decades. Going forward, India needs a multi-pronged approach to streamline e-waste management. This should include encouraging formal e-waste handlers, tightening the screws on illegal imports, driving down procurement costs and, most importantly, creating awareness.